6.6. Adapting to Inequalities

We all adapt to wherever we fall in our social hierarchies, no matter where we fall in the pecking order.

Having lived with inequalities as long as we have…we’ve adapted to them.

Powerful and privileged people, of course, adapt to them by expecting to always get what they want, by creating a story about how they deserve all of their successes, and by insisting that their subordinates treat them deferentially.

As I mentioned in a previous video, privilege blinds us and distorts our perspective. We start to see our own little inconveniences as enormous hardships—and, at the same time, minimize the truly devastating hardships others have to endure.

But it’s also interesting to consider how unprivileged or oppressed people adapt to living in an unequal society.

Sometimes, they accept it. Sometimes, they resist it. But research shows they often end up doing both at the same time.

One way to adapt, for instance, is to form a subculture.

Joining one can be a very fulfilling experience: making people more comfortable with their own identity, and giving them a chance to be accepted for who they are.

But often, the more invested you become in a subculture, the more distant you become from the dominant culture.

You may be fine with that. But it often has the consequence of perpetuating the inequality. You’re pretty much accepting that they’re going to shut you out, so you aren’t even going to try to play by their rules.

The same is true of people who become drug dealers or scammers or sell things on the black market, instead of trying to earn what most of us would consider an honest living.

Often, doing those kinds of work are the only way marginalized people can actually earn a living at all.

But these are industries that prey on addicts, the elderly, the uneducated, and other easy marks. It creates a situation where some marginalized people are trying to rise up by kicking other marginalized people when they’re already down.

And then, of course, there are the people who accept their marginalized status, at least outwardly.

A lot of people feel compelled to put up with a lot of microaggressions or other actions that demean them—either because they don’t see a point to resisting, they don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker, or because they personally gain something by tolerating it.

A woman in a male-dominated industry, for example, might feel compelled to tolerate sexist comments because she feels being a woman already puts her at a disadvantage, and she can’t afford to speak out without jeopardizing her career.

Not challenging inequalities can even be bartered, so to speak, for other benefits.

Many blue-collar or unskilled workers, for instance, won’t challenge their management so long as management gives them some autonomy, and doesn’t demean them by monitoring them too closely.

My point isn’t to say that one of these coping strategies is better or worse than the others.

My point is just that we all cope, we all adapt to wherever we fall in our social hierarchies, no matter where we fall in the pecking order.

If we want to create truly open, accepting, egalitarian communities, we have to be mindful of how we do this…or else we may end up perpetuating those inequalities, even as we’re trying to eliminate them.


This is the 98th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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